Play­ers need to turn their back on be­ing lean says Neil Fran­cis

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - NEIL FRAN­CIS

THE flip side of suc­cess for a rugby player is in­jury. While the coun­try basks in the feel-good fac­tor after the win over the All Blacks, the play­ers as­so­ci­ated with the se­ries en­joy their well-de­served credit and adu­la­tion. But those ly­ing prone on the treat­ment ta­ble voice their con­grat­u­la­tions through grit­ted teeth. It is hard some­times to feign sin­cer­ity.

I was hav­ing a bowl of soup be­fore the Ar­gentina game when news came through that Rob­bie Hen­shaw had been with­drawn dur­ing the warm-up. Tight­ness in the ham­string. There were no lies be­ing told there — a grade three tear of the ham­string will leave you with a soup­con of tight­ness. Eight to ten weeks out! Wow! It is rare to get through a week of camp and sus­tain a se­ri­ous in­jury in the warm-up. Where did that come from?

Hen­shaw will be our start­ing in­side cen­tre in the World Cup fi­nal next Novem­ber — OK, OK he will be our start­ing in­side cen­tre against Eng­land in the Aviva in Fe­bru­ary — if he is free from in­jury. He has be­gun to pick up too many in­juries in the last sea­son or two and maybe this in­jury is symp­to­matic of a cy­cle reg­u­larly in­jured play­ers find them­selves in.

Le­in­ster’s ham­string epi­demic con­tin­ues un­abated. Fer­gus Mc­Fad­den, after in­jur­ing his ham­string in the Heineken Cup semi-fi­nal, in­jured it again and is out for four or five months. Joe To­mane picked up an equally se­ri­ous ham­string tear two weeks ago and is out for five months. A player who pre­vi­ously had a neg­li­gi­ble his­tory of ham­string trou­ble sud­denly pulls a daddy of all tears a month or two into his ten­ure in his new club.

Once again no other prov­ince comes close to ship­ping the level and sever­ity of ham­string in­juries that the eastern prov­ince man­ages to. It is true that Louis Ludik has come back from a bad tear up in Ul­ster, but that was a Ha­ley’s Comet of an in­jury.

It has got to the stage now in Le­in­ster where you have to ask who hasn’t had a se­ri­ous ham­string in­jury in the squad. This cat­a­logue has been on­go­ing for four or five years now. Has there been an in­quiry? Or a re­view on strength and con­di­tion­ing pro­grammes? No other prov­ince has come re­motely close to this sort of toll. Le­in­ster do cat­a­logue and pro­file their player in­juries, but it would be bet­ter to try harder to pre­vent them.

Le­in­ster’s soft tis­sue in­jury rate has de­creased but their trauma rate has in­creased. Does luck play its part? Joe To­mane’s in­jury was clas­si­fied as a trauma in­jury. He was run­ning down the side­line, lost bal­ance and while on one leg he was hit hard. The ham­string is the eas­i­est point of give ap­par­ently.

I suf­fered from more than my fair share of in­juries dur­ing my ca­reer. There was al­most a fris­son of ‘what’s wrong with him now?’ at some press con­fer­ences. I would, how­ever, have been laughed out of town if ever a rea­son given for me not play­ing was ‘gen­eral tight­ness.’ You just wouldn’t have got away with it. Since when do 24-year-olds suf­fer from ‘gen­eral tight­ness?’ Man­age­ment may not have cared to tell us pre­cisely what the prob­lem was but maybe it ac­tu­ally was a com­bi­na­tion of gen­tle pulls, tears, bruises, le­sions, haematomas and sore­ness over the whole body, which, if you played against the All Blacks would grad­u­ate into some­thing more se­ri­ous. Do you just get a sense that Le­in­ster play­ers’ mus­cu­lar skele­tal sys­tem has been warped some­how and that they are one awk­ward turn away from pres­sure valve re­lease in­jury?

Hen­shaw’s ham­string was ex­plained as change in regime and a soggy pitch. Mc­Fad­den’s was a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors — age be­ing one of them.

Your par­ents al­ways told you never to buy a car that was in­volved in a car crash, it is never the same again once the chas­sis is dam­aged, noth­ing ever flows smoothly in the work­ings again. The in­jured player merry-go-round very, very dif­fi­cult to get off. All three cur­rent ham­string vic­tims are on it and will be lucky to be able to get off it. There are quite a num­ber of start­ing play­ers whose bod­ies have been banged out of shape and as soon as they get back they in­vari­ably pick up an­other in­jury.

I said after Seán O’Brien got in­jured in the Ar­gentina game that maybe he had been in­volved in too many fights at the OK Cor­ral. I thought that the tim­ing of the in­jury was sig­nif­i­cant — just be­fore half-time. O’Brien did not have his best half of in­ter­na­tional rugby and he may have been fa­tigued. I think he mist­imed his tackle and there was an el­e­ment of bad luck about it when you think about To­mas La­vanini’s slight duck mak­ing him have to re-gauge the tackle.

It also has to be said that O’Brien prob­a­bly be­ing a bit off his game con­trib­uted. I think if O’Brien had been fully match-fit and up to the pitch of the game he would have ex­e­cuted that tackle cor­rectly. It was symp­to­matic of in­jured player syn­drome — get­ting in­jured again be­cause his body is sus­cep­ti­ble to more in­jury and be­cause he could not get back into a run of games which makes you a lit­tle more prone to a re­cur­rence.

There is also a school of thought that there is a slav­ish ob­ses­sion with lean mus­cle tis­sue, a push to have ath­letes leaner so that they look sharper and quicker. A dexa scan is nor­mally used to de­ter­mine bone strength or mass. It can de­tect os­teo­poro­sis but it can also ac­cu­rately de­tect your BMI and some­times when I look at pro­fes­sional rugby I think it’s like a beauty con­test to see which player has the low­est BMI.

I al­ways point to the case of Amer­i­can foot­ball’s Her­schel Walker — the bril­liant Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner and a man who ran a 10.23 100 me­tres. He had sen­sa­tional speed for a run­ning back. Walker’s BMI was 1.4 per cent. That is un­nat­u­ral — even the skin­ni­est marathon run­ner couldn’t get close to that.

De­spite Walker’s freak­ish ta­lent, he never re­ally ful­filled his prom­ise or po­ten­tial. Walker spent his life on the treat­ment ta­ble. Bril­liant per­for­mances, in­jury, pass­able per­for­mance, in­jury and then he was traded and he never re­ally got a con­sis­tent run to ac­com­plish any­thing of value in the NFL. Walker looked great but com­bat ath­letes have to be able to ab­sorb hits.

You need fat to ab­sorb the con­tact. Lean mus­cle is great for run­ning fast but if you are a run­ning back and carry 30 times in a game you will not be able to ab­sorb all the pun­ish­ment.

Lis­ten to all the play­ers talk about their diet ad­just­ment and the amount of weight they have lost and how much lean mus­cle they have packed on and let them tell their story out the back of the physio room.

You might look bet­ter and run bet­ter and bench press more but you are gear­ing your bod­ies for the treat­ment ta­ble.

Never buy a car that was in a car crash

‘I think if Seán O’Brien had been fully match-fit and up to the pitch of the game he would have ex­e­cuted that tackle cor­rectly’

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